This Day in Jewish History

1776: The First Jew to Die for the Cause of the American Revolution

Francis Salvador was killed in battle with British loyalists and Seneca Indians, probably never knowing Congress had declared independence.

Edward P. Moran (painting)

On August 1, 1776, Francis Salvador, a Jewish settler in the colony of South Carolina, was killed in a battle with British loyalists and Seneca Indians along the Keowee River. He had been the first and only Jew to serve in a colonial congress, and was the first to die for the cause of the American Revolution.

Francis Salvador was born in London in 1747, the fourth generation of a Sephardi family who had arrived in England from Amsterdam. Originally named Jessurum Rodriguez, the family was prosperous, and Francis inherited a significant estate at the age of 2, after his father died. That was augmented when, at age 20, he married Sarah Salvador, a first cousin.

Francis’ grandfather had been among the organizers of the group of 42 impoverished London Jews who were sent to seek a better life in South Carolina in 1733. Although the colony later banned the immigration of Jews, they allowed those who already settled there to remain. For its part, the Salvador family bought a large parcel of land in the colony, becoming part-owners of some 200,000 acres in what was called the “96 District” in the northwest of the territory. When the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, combined with the failure of the Dutch East India Company, wiped out nearly all the rest of the Salvador family holdings, the land in South Carolina was nearly the only property that remained in its hands. 

In December 1773, a 26-year-old Francis Salvador arrived in Charleston, with the intention of rebuilding the family fortune. He expected to call for Sarah and their four children once he was settled. Salvador began to work a 7,000-acre plot he acquired from his uncle in the 96 District, but at the same time became involved in the burgeoning movement of anti-British activity. By January 1775, he was elected to the first Provincial Congress of South Carolina, which drew up a list of colonists’ grievances against the crown for presentation to the royal governor. The congress also appointed Salvador to participate in a committee that tried to convince British loyalists in the colony to come over to what became the revolutionary cause.

When the second Provincial Congress convened, in November 1775, Salvador was among those who urged its delegates who participate in the Continental Congress that was to meet in Philadelphia to vote for independence for the 13 colonies. He also served on a committee that was charged with keeping the peace with the native Americans in the colony’s interior. This was a special challenge, as the British superintendent of Indian affairs was working hard to encourage Cherokees to attack the colonists.

On July 1, 1776, Cherokees mounted an offensive against residents along the colonial frontier. They had been requested to do this by the British, who wanted to tie up the colonial militia while they undertook operations on the coast. Salvador sounded the alarm, riding horseback throughout the area, before joining the colonial militia in battle himself.

On July 31, two loyalists to the crown acting as double agents led the 300-strong militia into a Cherokee and Tory loyalist ambush on behalf of the British at the Keowee River. The next day, Francis Salvador was among those shot, receiving three wounds. He crawled into the bush, where he was discovered by Indians, and scalped. He died a short time later.

In a letter dated August 6, 1776, the militia commander, Major Andrew Williamson, reported on Salvador’s death. "When I came up to him after dislodging the enemy and speaking to him," he wrote, "he asked whether I had beaten the enemy. I told him ‘Yes.’ He said he was glad of it and shook me by the hand and bade me farewell, and said he would die in a few minutes." 

Salvadornever did get to see his wife or children, who were still back in London, again. It’s also likely that he never received the news that the Continental Congress had declared independence nearly a month earlier, on July 4, 1776.

He was mourned by a number of prominent South Carolina residents, including William Henry Drayton, later chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, who wrote of him that he had “sacrificed his life in the service of his adopted country."